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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Do Prisoners Count in Redistricting?

Here's a new wrinkle on redistricting that had eluded me over the years. At what location do you count prisoners when it comes to drawing lines for redistricting after each census--at the prison location, or at the address where they would normally live? The New York Times today reported in an editorial that the Maryland Supreme Court had made the right decision by agreeing with the state of Maryland that prisoners should not be counted at their prison address, but rather should be assigned to their pre-incarceration home address. This had, in fact, been the approach that the state had taken, but it had been challenged by a small group of people in the prison-heavy counties who thought that they could gain a bit more political power by claiming the prisoners as members of their community. Nice try!
The practice of counting inmates as local “residents” — even though they lack the right to vote — has been used to inflate the power of mainly rural areas where prisons tend to placed. It undercuts the power of the urban districts where the inmates actually live and where they generally return when they are released.
There are about 1.5 million people in prison nationally. Prison-based gerrymandering can easily be used to unfairly shift power from one part of a state to another. In Maryland, this gerrymandering distorted the political landscape. In one county commission district, for example, inmates made up 64 percent of the population. In one state legislative district, nearly a fifth of the population were inmates. 
Having said this, however, keep in mind that the argument is bit more nuanced than it might seem, since college students are counted where they live at college, not where their parents might live, and members of the Armed Forces are likewise counted at their home base, not at their pre-military home address.

1 comment:

  1. I think you can distinguish prisoners from other group quarters populations like college students and the members of the armed forces because incarcerated people are not residents of the prison location and can't -- by law -- become residents of the prison location.

    In many states (like California) the idea that a prison cell is not a residence is explicit in statute or state constitution, and in others its implicit with the idea that incarceration is involuntary and voluntariness is required for residence. College students do often vote absentee back at "home" but they can and do vote locally. In the handful of places and circumstances where prisoners can vote, they *must* do so back at home.

    BTW, this fall California passed a similar law, AB420.